EX CATHEDRA | Monteverdi Vespers at the Three Choirs Festival, Gloucester

It was Gloucester’s turn to host the Three Choirs festival this year. Having weathered the floods, the organisers’ determination that the show should go on was once again tested when conductor Vernon Handley was taken ill on the morning of his concert with the Philharmonia, the orchestra-in-residence. Thanks to Gloucester’s artistic director Andrew Nethsingha stepping into the breach and the rich resources of the Philharmonia players, the perfomance was a triumph over adversity with only a partial change of programme.

While the force of leader James Clark’s musicianship was apparent throughout, it was the sweetness and poignancy of his playing as soloist in The Lark Ascending by Vaughan Williams that proved most memorable, with the orchestra’s principal percussionist, David Corkhill, on the podium to direct the Philharmonia strings. Mozart’s Wind Serenade in C minor, K388, showed no signs of being hastily assembled, with the eloquent phrasing of the octet of players underlining the felicities that emerged in Mozart’s later piano concertos and operas.

Music by Elgar was at the core of the performance, with Nethsingha conducting both the Introduction and Allegro for Strings and the Enigma Variations. Nethsingha is economical of gesture but highly sensitive, and he ensured nicely detailed portrayals in the individual variations, balancing Elgar’s finely expressive melody with the more gutsy flourishes. The self-portrait of the last variation, with its glorious brass-writing, sounded particularly fine. By the evening, the cathedral’s lovely acoustic also afforded a perfect setting for Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610. The choir and baroque ensemble of Ex Cathedra were joined here by His Majestys Sagbutts and Cornetts, with director Jeffrey Skidmore pacing the sequence to highlight the contrast between Monteverdi’s serenely beautiful melodic writing and the joyous lilt of the recurring dance metre. Of the Ex Cathedra choristers stepping forward to take solo roles with notable flair, the two principal tenors stood out, bringing a Venetian passion to the line and, in the echo arias, a subtly matched tone.

The Guardian